RJ Winter 2000

The Quest for Untidy Accommodations

Peaceful coexistence between Jews and Palestinians is possible, but....

by Arthur Hertzberg

A debate is raging in Israel between mainstream Zionists and the emerging "post-Zionists" as to whether Israel should transform itself from a Jewish state to a Western-style democracy in order to achieve peaceful coexistence with the Arabs.

Speaking for the establishment, Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Aaron Barak rejects the idea that Israel needs to reinvent itself. Israel, he asserts, by its very nature as a Jewish state, is committed to Western democratic values. Equal justice under the law, he explains, is a fundamental principle of Hebraic teaching, and Western democratic thinking and practice derive in large part from rabbinic sources. Barak's argument has much appeal in Israel, but it is easily disproven. From a traditional religious perspective, the Jewish spirit is essentially undemocratic. The bulk of rabbinic law maintains that Judaism is based on the authority of divinely revealed scripture, not majority rule. Moses was not elected to office. On the contrary, he lost every vote of confidence orchestrated by his detractors, yet as God's emissary, he always prevailed.

Nor is Israel a democracy in the Western European or North American tradition. Israel's two largest minorities, the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, are not subject to all the same laws and obligations--such as the military draft --that apply to the rest of the population. Moreover, Israel has no constitution, and the model of individual equality has not, at least not yet, taken root; every minority group has a special status of its own. The Law of Return, the central pillar of the Jewish state, entitles Jews from anywhere in the world to obtain Israeli citizenship on demand, but denies this right to Palestinian refugees. True, in comparison to its neighbors, Israel remains the most democratic nation in the Middle East, but it will remain an imperfect democracy by Western standards so long as its laws enshrine a privileged status to Jews.

To correct this imbalance, a number of prominent Israeli intellectuals are calling for repeal of the Law of Return. Insisting that Israel has entered a "post-Zionist era," they say Jews should no longer be automatically entitled to special privileges, even if it weakens or severs the ties between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. Peace in the region, they insist, will come only when Israel becomes a democratic state for all its citizens. What these post-Zionists fail to mention is that no Arab state is hospitable to Jews as equals. Even the United States clearly favors certain nationalities over others.

What the post-Zionists really want is a secular state, devoid of Jewish religious influences or a national Jewish character. But to argue, as they do, that Israel's best hope for peace rests with an abandonment of Jewish statehood is a false hope, for the Jews of Israel will never consent to returning to an age when the Jewish people have no control over their destiny anywhere in the world.

The Palestinian argument for replacing Israel with a democratic state, as articulated by Edward Said, the leading spokesman in the West for Palestinian nationalism, is equally uncompromising. He argues that the Jews stole Palestine--not only Jerusalem and the West Bank but Haifa and Tel Aviv--and every inch of it must be returned to its rightful owners. Justice requires that Palestinians with claims to property in Israel should be allowed to return to their former homes. If that means an eventual Arab majority and a Jewish minority, so be it--true democracy is built on demographics, not on Zionist dreams.

Edward Said's plan for a post-Zionist state presumes that, for the sake of democratic ideals, Israelis will elect to dismantle the Jewish state. This, of course, will not happen. Such post-Zionist thinking is not a prescription for reconciliation; it is a provocation, and the result will be a bloody civil war. It is folly to suppose that Israeli Jews would subject their ownership of the Western Wall to a referendum that included Arabs; it is equally absurd to expect the Palestinians to accept the results of a vote that would deny them control of the Temple Mount. These bedrock issues cannot be subject to the electoral politics of "one man, one vote."

The problem with the post-Zionist argument is that it conveniently ignores the fact that the moral basis of Israel's existence is not, and has never been, Arab consent, but rather the needs of the Jews. During the Hitler era, the Zionist argument became avowedly, and without apology, that the world owed the Jews special consideration. Long before "affirmative action" came to describe redress for past injustices, Vladimir Jabotinsky, a militant Zionist, made such a case in 1937 to the Peel Commission, which would later recommend to the British government that Palestine be partitioned into two states, one for the Jews and one for the Arabs. Jabotinsky said he understood the sense of hurt and outrage felt by the Arabs of Palestine, but the Arabs, he explained, have large territories and six independent states which represent and safeguard their Arab, essentially Islamic, culture and tradition. The Jews, in contrast, are everywhere a minority, threatened by bitter enemies in Europe and not totally secure anywhere. Without a national center of its own, the Jews as a people and tradition are in danger of cultural and religious extinction. It would be a great tragedy, Jabotinsky concluded, not only for Jews but for the world as a whole, if this ancient people and tradition were to perish from the earth. To deprive some six hundred thousand Arabs (their approximate numbers in Palestine at the time) of control of the land is an injustice, but it pales into insignificance when measured against the larger tragedy that the Jews as a whole might disappear.

After World War II, the Arabs acknowledged that the West had subjected the Jews to unforgivable harm, but, they asked, why exact restitution from the Palestinians? What sins have the Arabs of Palestine committed against the Jews that would merit the punishment of their becoming a minority in their own land? The Arabs of Palestine were never given the chance to vote for or against a Jewish state; instead, the nations of the world settled the matter in a United Nations roll call. Thus, the state of Israel was sanctioned by outsiders and established by imposition.

It took some years for the Arab side to realize that the Jews had seized an advantage in this debate by framing the conflict as one between the Jews and the Arab world, not specifically between the Jews and the Palestinians. Those who founded and led the State of Israel, from Ben-Gurion to Menachem Begin and Golda Meir, kept insisting that there is no Palestinian people--or, conversely, that they too are Palestinians. They clearly attempted to place the quarrel between Jews and Arabs on the wider stage, of Jews versus the whole of the Arab world. If such is the case, Palestine is a paltry number of acres in a wide expanse of territory. However, when framed as a quarrel between Jews and Palestinians, then the Zionists are confronting a small people which regards itself as no less a victim than the Jews.

There is no denying today that there is a Palestinian people. Last July at Camp David, Yasir Arafat reasserted that there can be no peace unless the national rights and national honor of the Palestinians are fully restored. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak responded as has every Israeli statesman, from right to left, since 1948: how can Israel, as a Jewish state, withstand the return of two million or more Palestinians? So, half a century after the creation of Israel, Jews and Arabs are back to square one. Israel cannot allow all or even most of the Palestinian refugees back in any part of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River; and any Arab leader who accepts Israel's stand on the refugees will be disavowed--or worse.

Is compromise possible? Can a peace agreement be reached in which more than a token and less than a flood of the refugees would be allowed to return to what was once Palestine? Yes, but only if the Arab states and the Palestinians can accept Israel for what it is--a nation born through an act of international "affirmative action."

When Jewish claims in Palestine were first recognized in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, that document firmly established the rights of Jews to establish their national home in Palestine, no matter what the Arabs might think. But, it included a proviso enjoining the Jews to pay exquisite regard to the rights of Arabs living in Palestine. Some Zionists proposed that this declaration be interpreted to mean a bi-national state, but the Arabs of Palestine rejected any such notion. From the very beginning, the dominant Palestinian policy was war against the Jews. And yet, the deepest current within the Jewish community recognizes that it has a moral obligation to bring as little harm as possible to the Arabs of Palestine. Israel is therefore morally bound to do what is doable: equalize what is spent on Jewish and Arab schools within its borders; upgrade the infrastructure and public services of Arab towns and villages; and support every effort, both public and private, to promote civility between the two groups.

The Palestinians may feel that all the land of Palestine is theirs, but peace requires that they finally accept the principle of partition. Israel will not remake itself in a post-Zionist image to please the Palestinian nationalists; the Palestinians will never remake themselves into a docile satellite of Israel. The Jews may wish to control greater Israel, but peace requires that they recognize some level of Palestinian nationhood and sovereignty. In this conflict, there is no peaceful ideological solution. There can only be pragmatic accommodation, the sooner the better.

The great moral philosopher Isaiah Berlin has said: no ideology dare be taken to its ultimate conclusion. In its search for justice and decency, mankind can survive only by untidy accommodations among various principals and interests, subject to revision from time to time. In the search for peaceful coexistence between Jews and Palestinians, the alternative to war are these untidy accommodations.

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg is Bronfman Visiting Professor of the Humanities at New York University and a contributing editor of Reform Judaism magazine. He has written nine books, among them The Zionist Idea.

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